Friday, August 27, 2010

Whirlwind tour of a tiny part of Indonesia

As many of you know, we had no plans for August because D was waiting to hear if he had a job/visa and we couldn't plan anything until that was settled, which it finally was towards the end of July (he got both and will be moving here in a few weeks!!). We then very hurriedly planned a last minute trip to Indonesia - we literally bought the tickets four days before we left, got a guidebook and a hotel for the first night and then took off. For some countries that's fine, but for Indonesia it's not extremely recommended to do it this way... but it sure beats staying at home!

We based ourselves in Bali, which we found out is the center of honeymoon culture for a reason - it is packed with gorgeous boutique hotels organized into villas rather than giant rectangular buildings. Many of the villas have their own private swimming pool, jacuzzi bathtub, etc, and the option of having a candlelight dinner out next to the pool in your villa. It's a bit over the top, but very luxurious... and once you locate the online discounts, relatively affordable. Our favorite was the Gending Kedis in Jimbaran, closely followed by Dreamland Villas. Highly recommended for some quiet time relaxing with your loved one.

But of course we only relaxed for a few days before flying over to the neighboring island of Lombok on a tiny little Chinese plane. We spent the next three days climbing the Rinjani volcano, which is extra awesome because inside the crater is a lake, and in the middle of the lake is a mini-volcano that is actively smoking. It was, on the whole, a beautiful hike, but much more difficult than advertised. A lot of people intended to summit, but in the end probably less than half the people who made it to the crater rim even attempted to summit, and of those, several didn't make it all the way up. I let D go while I slept in, as I was nursing some serious blisters and couldn't quite face the thought of scrambling up volcanic scree on my wounded feet.

We recovered with a night in Senggigi, a seaside town on Lombok with more big villa resorts, where there was a gorgeous sunset over the beach... though I was fairly passed out the whole evening and barely able to walk because of the muscle soreness and blisters, so I can't say I took advantage. Seemed worth staying longer if you have the time, though - it's got all the beauty of Bali with less of the crazy party atmosphere.

The next day we got a fast boat back to Bali and spent the afternoon in Kuta, which is kind of like an Asian Cancun... lots of scantily-clad Western women, all-night booze fests, drinks with dirty names, etc. The attraction for me was mainly the shopping, though, and the proximity to the airport, which we visited again the following day when we took another tiny plane over to the island of Flores, where we landed in Labuanbajo looking for a boat to Komodo National Park.

Organizing a tour on arrival was relatively easy, though it meant that our day got cut a little short. After lunch we took off on a fairly small boat, just the two of us and two crew, with a table on the deck that was moved over and replaced by mats to sleep on at night, which was actually relatively comfortable, though it was pretty much camping. But of course it was totally worth it, and we arrived at Rinca Island, home of about a third of the world's wild Komodo dragons, and just as we got off the boat there was a dragon sitting there in the sun not 10 feet away from us. Over by the visitor center were several more (attracted by the smell from the cafeteria, apparently), and we went on a hike around the park and saw a few females guarding their nests. The nests are big holes in the ground, and they actually make several as decoys so they are harder to penetrate.

Komodo dragons, we learned, can reach up to 3 meters in length and around 100 kg. They are vicious predators, eating anything that moves, and can kill animals as large as buffalo (even lions can't kill adult buffaloes). They rarely attack humans, although it has been known to happen. The coolest thing about them, though, is that they aren't actually venomous - instead they have over 50 species of bacteria in their saliva, so when they bite their prey, they infect it. They then can trail the prey and wait patiently for up to two weeks (!) while the animal slowly dies of an overwhelming infection.

When you are on the islands, you are required to have a guide with you at all times, and that person carries a big wooden stick with a forked end. Supposedly this method of defending against angry dragons is time-tested, but it didn't look especially trustworthy to me. As we were on our way off the island, a big dragon lumbered down the path ahead of us and then got in a territorial fight with another dragon just in front of the pier. There was a lot of loud hissing and it definitely looked like you wouldn't want to mess with the dragons, but fortunately there was a platform we were able to get onto so we didn't have to try out the stick.

The next day we went to the actual island of Komodo, where we saw more dragons, a lot of deer, a snake, and a kind of bird that always goes around in pairs that you see digging dirt with their feet. We then went snorkeling in unbelievably crystal clear water near Pink Beach, where there were incredibly colorful (and big) fish, before heading back to the main island for our flight back to Bali.

The last few days we spent in Ubud, Bali's cultural capital, where we stayed in a hotel right on the edge of the Monkey Forest. It lived up to its reputation and not only did we have a whole troop of monkeys playing on our balcony in the morning (which we could watch from bed), but monkeys routinely came and stole food off the breakfast tables of people sitting at the edge of the dining room. Since a comment to this effect was one of the main reasons we booked the place, we were happily satisfied. We visited a few temples, ate really well (Three Monkeys is highly recommended!), did a fair amount of shopping, saw a pretty uninspiring performance of Balinese dance, and visited a coffee plantation where we tried the world's most expensive coffee.

This coffee is, I kid you not, made from beans that are collected from the poop of the civet, a lemur-like animal that trolls the forests of Bali looking for the choicest coffee beans. The beans are then processed by the enzymes in the digestive tract of the civet and collected by people who spend their days searching the Balinese hills for civet poop. They are cleaned and roasted and then sold at several hundred dollars per kilo of coffee... I'm not exactly a coffee connoisseur, but I would say the civet coffee tasted more "earthy" than regular coffee. I didn't think it was worth the price, but the experience was, of course, priceless.

We spent our last day in a gorgeous villa in Jimbaran, from which I had to be dragged kicking and screaming, such that we almost missed our plane home. It's really a shame Indonesia is so far away, because realistically I wont be back any time soon, much as I am dying to return. It's a huge country, extremely varied, with something for every taste and budget (though as far as I could tell, not a lot for the extreme low budget traveler). It's a bit of a hassle to get around because of the island chain factor, but it's worth every bit of energy and money you put into getting there, and once there, you can have a luxury vacation for the price of a low-end one at home. Plus, tourism is somewhat reduced after the bombings of 10 years ago, so it's less crowded and overpriced than it was, and outside of the main resorts of Bali, you have the place practically to yourself... for now.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Vipassana Meditation – Is it a cult?... aka Buddhism for Dummies

Last year as I was traveling through India, where I had an immediate feeling of spiritual homecoming, I had the good fortune to meet a fellow traveler who told me about a program of silent meditation called Vipassana. Now, I am the most skeptical person you will ever meet (except, perhaps, for my other half), but something about it appealed to me for whatever reason, and I got it in my head that I must find a way to attend this program. In the meanwhile I endured snide comments about joining a cult (mostly from you know who) and about how it sounds like the kind of brainwashing torture they do to POWs, and I was not able to find many very clear and concise explanations online in order to defend myself. So now that I have been through the program I feel the need not only to share this amazing experience with you but to clear the air about the important question – is it, in fact, a cult?

In a word – no. Here’s what it is: 2500 years ago a man by the name of Siddhartha Gautama, who was an Indian prince, renounced all his royal riches and went off to live the humble life of a poor man in search of enlightenment. At the time, and still, there were many methods of meditation available, most of which promised to give you inner peace and liberation, etc. Gautama tried a bunch of them and settled on the technique of Vipassana. Vipassana is not a religion – let’s be clear – it is a philosophy of life and a technique of meditation that allows you to try to achieve a physical sense of that philosophy. And the philosophy is simple; it espouses three things, and three things only: sila (morality), samadhi (focusing the mind/observing one’s self), and panna (wisdom). So the idea is that through meditation you get to the root of what is going on in your mind, particularly your cravings and aversions, by really paying attention to your body’s physical sensations, and you learn to view them with equanimity, thereby tempering your reactions in life so that instead of reacting with hatred, anger, and greed, you face the world with love and compassion. This leads to a sense of inner peace and profound happiness. Basically it is a very primitive form of cognitive behavioral therapy.

So when Gautama became enlightened, he became a buddha, which just means an enlightened person – he was thus one of many buddhas, although he is the one we now refer to as The Buddha. He then spent 45 years teaching this philosophy – which is referred to as the dhamma – to as many people as he could. Over the following 5 centuries it spread to many of the neighboring countries. Over time there was opposition from various people who were making money off of people’s greed and other vices, and the dhamma slowly disappeared, only preserved in a monastery in Burma, where it was faithfully practiced and taught in the way of the Buddha to a select group of Burmese people until early in the last century, when the technique started to grow and be spread, first back to India, the land of its origin, and then around the world.

What I find to be great about it, though, is that it is open to anyone and it doesn’t ask you to change your beliefs, renounce your god(s), or even accept any part of it that you don’t like. It doesn’t make you a Buddhist (for instance, I don’t believe in the cycle of reincarnation, and I don’t have to), it is a philosophy that applies to anyone of any background or religion, and it’s one that generates an attitude of compassion, humility and servitude, and really, who can argue with that?

Vipassana courses like the one I attended are now run in many countries all over the world. You are required to start with a ten-day course (which is completely free and funded solely by the donations of past students, because of the virtues of charity and renunciation fundamental to the technique), during which you observe complete silence. I thought this would be difficult, but in fact I found it refreshing, and when the ten days were up, I didn’t want to start talking again. The reasons for the silence are manifold, but perhaps most importantly, if you can talk, you start comparing your experiences, and you start judging and feeling like you aren’t making as much progress as you should be, and then the whole idea of equanimity is blown to pieces.

The other thing that appealed to me about the course was the teacher, SN Goenka, who teaches via DVDs and recorded audio. At first I found this a bit weird, but the fact is that he is a great speaker and to be honest he is the first person that I have heard speak in a reasonable way on the subject of Buddhism. For instance, one of my big pet peeves is that people think of Buddhism as one of the world’s major religions. It is not a religion. It is a philosophy of life. Buddhism doesn’t have any gods. The Buddha is a figure who represents the philosophy, and as such people pay their respects to him, but they don’t ask him for favors, as he has no special powers. However, because it is a philosophy rather than a religion, and people seem to need religion, it gets overlaid with the local beliefs, and thus in India and Sri Lanka, for example, the gods that “Buddhists” worship are actually Hindu gods. The funny thing is that most people who call themselves Buddhists don’t even realize this, and many don’t follow the basic tenets of Buddhism.

Buddhism has a set of guidelines, and these include not killing, not lying, not stealing, etc. However, these are quite often not followed or even entirely understood by people who call themselves Buddhists. When I was in Sri Lanka, a primarily Buddhist country, I tried to get to the root of this, and started with the obvious question: why do most of them eat meat (violating the no killing rule)? I got answers that varied from “well, technically the Muslims kill the animals” to “it’s not realistic to be a vegetarian” (um, hello, have you heard of India? It’s this big country right next door where hundreds of millions of people are vegetarian…).

My hosts, sensing my interest in learning more about Buddhism, actually arranged a meeting for me with a preeminent Buddhist scholar at the university in Colombo. Ah ha! I thought, now I will finally get an answer on this subject. Here is how this part of our conversation went:

Me: So, I see that in Buddhism you aren’t supposed to kill or harm any living being. I was wondering, then, how Buddhists reconcile that with the practice of eating meat.

Professor: You know, my ten year old son asked me that the other day… and I said, “shut up!”

Ok, not very impressive for someone who is purportedly an expert. But when I got to the Vipassana course, I found that Goenka-ji was the first person I had seen who actually acknowledges the Buddhist philosophy and lives by it (and to be clear, he is a Hindu, but since it’s a philosophy, he can practice both). One of the first things he pointed out was the hypocrisy that I have been trying to get to the bottom of on this vegetarian issue. And he went on to explain the rest of the philosophy in a very clear way and one that finally agreed with all that I had read of what Buddhism is theoretically supposed to be.

I liked this anecdote of his very much, and I paraphrase:

Jesus Christ was a very great man – when you look at how he died, tortured to death, and see that he had only love and compassion for those that killed him in their ignorance, there is no doubt that he was a very great man. A student came to me once and said “oh, Goenka-ji, I am a devotee of Jesus Christ.” “Oh, wonderful,” I said. “Yes, I am a devotee because I believe he was the son of God,” said the student. “What? You think he needs your testimonial? You think if enough people say he’s the son of God then he will get all puffed up and he really will become the son of God?? No!! He doesn’t need your testimonials. If you are truly a devotee of Jesus, then you follow his morality – you are humble and compassionate. Otherwise it’s a blind devotion, and what is that worth?”

Now, this is how I’ve always felt, and this blind devotion is one of the big reasons that organized religion always really turned me off. So I was personally really impressed by this man’s insight and willingness to say it like it is. And I also really like the fact that here is a philosophy of life that espouses all the things that I believe in without resorting to eternal punishment to scare people into being good. Shouldn’t we just be good people because it’s the right thing to do and we and everyone around us will be better off for it? I’ve always thought so, and here it turns out Vipassana has been saying that for two and a half millennia!

So anyway, if you’ve reached the end of this, you should be quite proud of yourself, because I’ve gone on for a long time, but I imagine that many of you are like I was just a couple of years ago, with only a vague idea of what Buddhism is or what the Buddha actually taught, and it’s such a wonderful message that I hope I can let you in on it without you having to read some boring book. And as for Vipassana, I would encourage you to try it out. After all, it doesn’t cost anything, so if you don’t like it, all you’ve lost is 10 days (and maybe a few pounds if you play your cards right). And I can almost guarantee that if you go in with an open mind and really try to practice the technique seriously, you will come out feeling happier and more peaceful and wont regret having given that time.

One final disclaimer – I don’t consider myself a Buddhist, nor do I claim to follow any religion. I am simply someone who believes in being a good person, serving others, not harming living beings (except maybe cockroaches – ick), and being as compassionate as I can. I have no interest in converting anyone to anything, but I’d be happy to discuss this further with anyone, or point you to additional resources and information. One good place to start learning about Buddhism is, and you can find information on Goenka’s Vipassana courses at For the literary-minded, there is always Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha as well, along with a plethora of books such as What the Buddha Taught, which I haven’t read yet but have been told is a good introduction to the subject.

Be happy!

Adventure map for 2009...